One hip pressed against the kitchen countertop, I stirred the chunks of fragrant beef with onions and garlic, sort of making lists of to-dos but not thinking about much of anything special. The dog lifted one ear, broke wind then shifted his head from one paw to the other with a sigh. About four seconds later, I heard what he’d already dismissed – the scrape of the Silverado’s tires on the driveway. My son Gus bellowed “MA!” and his size 14 boots crunched onto the wooden porch. He yanked the screen door near off its hinges and hulked in the doorway, throwing a lozenge of shade across the pale tile floor. Nothing unusual about that. I turned my head away from the stove to clear the cooking fog from my bifocals. Still partially blinded, I folded a pair of potholders around the bail of the cast iron pot. When I could see clearly enough not to set my shirt on fire, I turned off the gas and slid the pan off the burner.
“Boots.” Shuffle, thump. Bump, cuss, thump.
“Ma!” Gus’ head was almost hitting the lintel.
I scraped the stew mixture into the crock pot and deglazed the pan with some chicken stock. “Hat!”
He tore off his straw field Stetson and hit the hook by the door with a much-practiced backhand pitch. He was wearing a blue Madras shirt with the sleeves rolled up over powerful forearms, pressed jeans and the wool socks I’d knitted when he was in grade eight. They’d been stretched, of course, and washed and mended and sun-dried so many times the original red looked more like baby pink.
“They say Uncle Brewster left a quarter by Brushy Creek to that Myra woman that bought Sass Potter’s titty bar last year!” He stomped over to the sink and scrubbed his hands and his face in a lather of lavender soap.
“That’s just not right, Ma.” He grumbled into the towel as he scrubbed dry, rawhide-tied plait swinging over his shoulder. Gus is my youngest, but the sweet nape of neck that used to be smooth and innocent had ripened to the texture of rough-cut swamp cedar. Born late and light, his hair was dark as a crow’s tail feathers. Gus came rightly by his highly developed sense of what should be right and what is wrong, having sat for decades around the kitchen table as his three older brothers and his sister debated with their philosophical doctor father, no subject safe from their chainsaw discourse.
“Smells good, Ma.” He picked up a clean wooden spoon and stirred the meat mixture as I dumped in peeled carrot and potato chunks. “Nate Simmons. Biddy Crossley.”
“Biddy is a drunken old fool and Nate should know better about client privilege. I don’t know what he ever saw in that woman!”
“Well, Biddy does rattle on. But Nate should know about the will, shouldn’t he?”
“Hmmph. Well, it’s none of our business. Besides, we don’t even know if Brewster’s real kin.” I poured him a glass of sweet tea and filled a plate with fresh-baked banana muffins. “Sit down, son.Relax yourself.” We sat at the kitchen table, the nicked pine surface glowing in the golden slant of afternoon sun.
“What do you mean, we don’t know?”
“He showed up at your grandpa’s door about fifty years ago, all beat up, with a forgetful mind and crooked baby finger just like all the men in our family. And he had a satchel of mysterious papers we were never allowed to see. It was enough to get him a bed and a new pair of boots and he was your daddy’s new brother. Never said much to anyone. Never gave your grandma a moment’s worry. Went to law school and bought some land, hired some hands and a series of housekeepers. So he can give it to whoever he wants.” I refilled our glasses.
Gus chewed half a dozen muffins and leaned back in the chair, the old joints squealing under the strain. “Did he ever get married, have a girlfriend?”
“Not that we knew of. Lived out by Olympusville with the help, but sometimes he’d disappear for weeks at a time. We heard stories and met some ladies over the years but there was never a permanent Mrs. Uncle Brewster.”
Gus went to the fridge and refilled the pitcher, then our glasses. The rich smell of simmering stew filled the warm kitchen. “But why her? I thought I was his favourite.” That sounded odd coming from the mouth of a hulking cowboy who’d been to war in the Middle East and back.
“Let me tell you something, Gus. Uncle Brewster loved you like a son, but you weren’t his son. Your Daddy says there’s some history with that girl and that it’s righteous and that’s all we need to know. Besides, this farm is our legacy to you when Daddy and I pass on. That’ll give you six quarters instead of the one.”
“But I don’t want this farm, Ma.” Gus’ voice was angry but his face still carried a soft and unfinished look. He knelt beside my chair, arms around my waist, his head in my lap. “I always thought, if I had Uncle Brewster’s quarter, I’d have my land then.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, but I did. I lay my palm on his cheek and his breath warmed my fingers.
“If I had that quarter it’d be enough for me.” He covered my hand with his. “There’d be no need for any legacy, Ma. That’s what I mean.”